Bryan Cranston was successful before. As the long-suffering father of 'Malcolm in the Middle' and the CIA officer charged with keeping Ben Affleck in check in 'Argo', he's successfully proved his versatility.
But as Walter White, the cancer-suffering, crystal meth-producing Everyman in 'Breaking Bad', he's gone into another league altogether, bringing to the role a compassion, anger, dignity, bleak humour and something existential and transforming that have lifted the series, and earned him three Emmy Awards in a row.
Bryan Cranston has made Walt, a very bad man, a very sympathetic character in 'Breaking Bad'
To mark Series 1 to 5 becoming available on DVD, he sat down and reflected on what it takes to play Walt, how he knows that 'Breaking Bad' is messing with viewers' heads, and how Walter can possibly be redeemed...
"I don't know. It's such a subjective viewpoint. I don't judge him. I don't have time to judge him when I'm playing him. I don't have the luxury of looking in the past. He's staying alive and figuring out his moves for the future. This was all designed. This series is unlike any in the history of television. Never happened before, to have a character completely change from bad to good, or as we went, from good to bad. You see it sometimes in movies where people find themselves, but in a series, no. Never happened. To legitimately see this guy, inch-by-inch, those guideposts move him from one point to another.
It is the stasis of television history that people loved. The fact that they would be able to tune in a show and see a character that they love and will be that guy or say that thing that that woman always says that I love. And there's comfort in that, and that's good. This show was meant to be discomforting. We were trying something that hasn't happened. The hook was to make him sympathetic. We knew that if we can make you sympathise with him at first, in the first couple episodes, you were rooting for him. But the audience's thoughts aren't that pure either.
Because you're rooting for him to make crystal meth amphetamine and sell it to the world! Why is that good? So there is ambivalence even in that! And when Skyler's going, 'Why are you lying, where have you gone?' I've heard people going, 'what a bitch!' And I go, 'oh, yeah, because her husband's LYING to her and she wants him safe and is worried about her children... she's a bitch.' Isn't this interesting, what's happened, the socio-political structure? It was the upheaval of everything that was happening, because we were going in an area that no one was comfortable with. And no one had a history of experiencing it.
Anna has said she was surprised by the vitriol and that it points to how wives are treated on TV...
I think on a deeper level that we were upsetting the apple cart. Every time someone tuned it, we changed it again. It's not what they were feeling last week. And it changed again! People were getting angry and freaking out and being addicted to it like it was the drug itself.
Does it frighten you how you can manipulate people's feelings?
It's not amazing to me, and when you analyse it, it's not amazing at all. From our earliest age, we want to be told a story. Tells us a story. Once upon a time... whatever it is. From the time we can crawl in our parents' laps. Look at the pictures. Then it gets more sophisticated, now it's words and the delicate nature of putting them together. We're human beings, we want to be told stories. We're willing to pay $10 to go to a movie theatre, sit there and watch an actor we know damn well is not the character. But it doesn't matter. That's the agreement we make. We're willing to suspend our disbelief if we're told a story. We'll go on that journey. We are willing to be manipulated. The entire time. The only things we're not willing to take are – don't lie to us and don't bore us. How dare you. The artist should never bore. If what I do makes you mad, great. I'll accept that. It's a legitimate emotion. But boredom means you checked out. Or if the writing and the acting is a lie, you're going to check out.
To, me, I call it a little pinch of poison. I coach actors, and I tell them, do not allow your audience to have that poison. Because the first pinch, I don't even know I took it. Second pinch, third pinch... I'm getting a knot in my stomach. I don't know that it's even related to that... By the fourth pinch, I'm changing the channel, I'm not into this movie at all. And you start pushing away. To the person who doesn't analyse it, they can't tell you why they didn't like it. But that's what it is. If I'm walking into my room, my character's bedroom and I walk in the door and I look for the light switch? It's a pinch of poison, it's a lie.
We don't do that. You know where that light switch is, you don't have to look for it. Does the audience know that? No. But they feel it. And you keep giving me pinches like that and pretty soon they're calling bullshit. And they push away. So good writers, actors and directors look for those things. It's a never-ending job. It's a fun job, the best I've ever had, and we look for those opportunities to make it real, to make it honest. So when we're playing a character, we have to buy into it. I can't judge him, I am not looking for people to sympathise with me or hate me, or anything, I'm just trying to stay alive. That's my goal.
As you've gotten closer to the end, have your theories on how it could finish changed?
You know, I was probably prompted into making some kind of speculative statement earlier. But I honestly say this not as a cop out, I honestly, truly, want it to end as Vince Gilligan wants it to end. It's his baby. He was the captain. He does what he wants and I'm all for it. There's the trust exercise where you catch someone - we do it in acting class. I've been falling back onto his arms for six years. And he's always caught me.
You can't speculate on what will happen, but do you have a sense of the tone? Vince said audiences would need an adult nappy...
I can’t tell you - because I don't know, I don't ask and they don't tell me - my journey has been so switchbacky and I haven't found it helpful. If I were in a series that was closed-ended, then I'd want to know. But this has been such a massive journey for me. But I can tell you that instead of serpentining its way through the journey and meeting Tuco and Gus and Mike and Saul and all these things, this one seems to be a downhill ride. (Mimes being on a rollercoaster) Aaaaagh! You're screaming your way to the end. It's compressed, it's tight.
Do you see the character over the course of the show as a split personality?
I have to then force myself to think objectively and step back from it and look. My personal feeling is that every single human being is capable of becoming a Heisenberg of their own. We are born with a full palette. Anyone could become very dangerous, given the right set of circumstances. The right buttons being pushed. But it's logical too - if we're capable of feeling immense anger and frustration and you add to that desperation, abject sadness from a loss or something. Look at what we are suffering as human beings.
To a degree, there's a certain degree, there's some mental illness in all of us. Some greater than others. But there are levels we're all dealing with. We all cope in different ways. I run and when I run I get rid of aggressions or anxieties or if I'm holding on to things. It's a solo act for me, and I think of things and I come back and I drink water and sleep better, eat better because I feel good about what I've done. I'm more regular... All the things you don't want to know. My wife says, 'Can you go run?' when she can sense I need it. And you're lucky if you find it. Walter White, let me bring it around, is no different. But his Heisenberg was in a condition where it could come out because he needed it. He needed to stay alive, to figure things out.
If in doubt, the hat comes out...
Now he's in this arena, he'd better figure out how to stay alive or just drop out and die. And so up comes Heisenberg. What is it? It's this hat. It helps him drop into that guy. It does. If I were wearing a tuxedo right now, I wouldn't be slumped this way. It changes how you present yourself or how you feel about yourself. Depending on what you're wearing. If you have a good day, your shoulders are back, it affects you. So Walter White goes to that touchstone, that talisman of the pork pie hat, and man when he puts that on, it changes him.
For Bryan Cranston, what does it take to get into that mode?
I touch into my darkness. I'm fully capable of being an asshole. I don't want to be. And we're conditioned as people. Children aren't born sweet and loveable, they're born selfish. And self-centred. It's about them. We have to say, "share the toys, no you can't take that. Be kind, be nice. Inside voices. Don't say that..." We're constantly conditioned until we get to be adults and we're supposed to condition ourselves. We have rules and etiquette and behaviour modification. And we're constantly worried what we say and we apologise. And that's what make-up sex is for....
Actors voluntarily, willingly say, "this is what I want to do." In order for me to do it well, I have to go, "Okay. I'm not only figuratively naked. I'm literally naked. I'm naked in that store or whatever." Am I nudist? No. I have to be able to go, 'Okay, this is me. I'm vulnerable. You can laugh at me, or hug me or whatever you want to do.' And when we're in high school, we strive to be like everyone else because we don't want to stand out to be ridiculed. But the reality is, if you're willing to be vulnerable, you won't be that, you'll be embraced. That's the greatness of human beings.
Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-5 are out now on Blu-ray and DVD.